Drought, pension reform and the future of the California State University system were all topics of discussion Friday at the third annual San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce State of the State luncheon.
The message taken away from the three statewide experts in town to address the group: situations are dire but San Luis Obispo is in a good position to weather the challenges ahead.
Bob Linscheid, chair of the CSU Board of Trustees, reminded attendees of the “economic engine” the city holds in Cal Poly. He spoke of the need to attract out-of-state students to the university as a way to increase revenues.
“In order to embrace our talent, we need to look beyond our borders,” Linscheid said.
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In response to a question from the audience, Linscheid defended the CSU system’s salaries for university presidents — far exceeding the $300,000 mark, with free housing.
“If anything, it’s not enough,” Linscheid said. “They have responsibility for our most important resource — our children — and they’re getting vilified for that.”
Cal Poly President Jeffrey Armstrong, who was in the audience, is paid $350,000 a year and lives in the university’s presidential residence.
Paul Helliker, deputy director of Delta and Statewide Water Management for the California Department of Water Resources, warned that 2015, despite predictions of a rainy El Niño year, will not be a savior for the county’s water woes.
“You do a great job of turning water into wine,” Helliker said, “but we’re not expecting that next year is going to save us.”
Helliker pointed to ocean desalination as a longterm solution for California’s water crisis.
“I think the way things are going in California, that desal is going to be a way of the future,” he said.
Every state agency would have to be on board to make desalination viable, he added. “I foresee the Coastal Commission is going to be a partner in this.”
David Crane, former special adviser to former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, had a different warning for the group. The entire country, he said, faces a looming crisis in the form of unfunded liabilities in pension and benefits obligations.
“It’s not because public employees are bad, and they get vilified unfairly,” said Crane, an expert on government accounting and pension funding. “This problem is caused by politicians making promises and not setting aside money to fulfill those promises.”
Crane wasn’t asked about how the pension issue affects San Luis Obispo.
After the event, some audience members said they were disappointed that the discussion seemed Sacramento-centric, without much localized focus.
Absent from the discussion, they said, was any mention of residents’ worries over a proposed Cal Poly student dormitory next to a residential neighborhood, the county’s emergency measures in the Paso Robles groundwater basin or the implications of a recent court ruling overturning a city ballot measure that repealed binding arbitration.
The event was attended by a who’s who of San Luis Obispo. Mayor Jan Marx, council members John Ashbaugh and Carlyn Christianson, police Chief Steve Gesell, fire Chief Garret Olson, San Luis Coastal Unified School District Superintendent Eric Prater, San Luis Obispo County District Attorney candidate Tim Covello and about 250 others — bankers, small-business leaders and more — were in attendance.